Corporate America is facing its toughest challenge in 50 years. The crisis is not just external to us—in the form of economic downturns, scarce resources, or competitive pressures. At issue also is the integrity and conduct of our managers as well as the systems and institutions that form the infrastructure of business.
America simply cannot flourish without trust. I believe that most of our students and business leaders are worthy of trust and that, when it comes to the big picture, they know right from wrong. Oftentimes, the objection to business ethics in the MBA curriculum is that it’s too late in the day to be teaching adults right from wrong when their moral character is largely formed.
I think such reasoning mischaracterizes the purpose of business ethics in the curriculum. A well-developed sense of right and wrong does not necessarily shed light on or even provide entry into decisions about the dismissal of employees, products with side effects, marketing to children, assumptions used in financial analyses and other issues.
Business ethics can sensitize students to the moral dimensions of routine decisions, offer multiple conceptual frameworks for analyzing moral problems, expand imagination to generate win-win outcomes, broaden perspectives to understand the influence of cultures and religious beliefs and give students a clearer grasp of their own boundaries and values.
As educators, we owe it to our students to cultivate fully their talent, ambition and the desire for good. Yet in management education, business ethics is often isolated and rendered out of view of the “hard” disciplines—market-based theories and quantitative models. In so doing, we may have unintentionally legitimized or encouraged the abdication of personal responsibility through language and frameworks that foster a sense of detachment, indifference and even callousness.
Given the academy’s commitment to developing leaders, we must never let our students forget their tremendous impact— for both good and harm. They should recognize that the exercise of power must be accompanied by a deep sense of care, and that true leadership requires competence, character and courage. Education is a generous, grace-filled vocation. As teachers, mentors and elders, it is our tremendous privilege to take on our students—both mind and heart. They deserve nothing less.
This weekend on a special edition of Inside INdiana Business, we travel to South Bend to spotlight the businesses and organizations that make Michiana tick. Taped on location at the University of Notre Dame, ( i ) on South Bend will examine the regional economy and show you what military humvees and chocolate have in common.
Adapted from Selections magazine, Fall 2002.